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Materials Used in Water Supply Pipes

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018

The pipes used to transport potable drinking water in a home plumbing system use different materials than those used for the pipes carrying drain water. Your home may have a plumbing system that uses all one type of material for the water supply pipes, but don’t be surprised to find several types of pipes, especially in older homes that have seen many repairs or updates.

Here are some common materials used for water supply pipes.

Galvanized Steel

Galvanized pipe is steel pipe that has been treated with a zinc coating. This galvanized coating keeps the water from corroding the pipe. It was once the most common type of pipe for water supply lines, but because labor and time that goes into cutting, threading, and installing galvanized pipe, it no longer used much, except for limited use in repairs. However, galvanized pipe for water distribution is still seen in larger commercial applications.

If you have a pre-1970s house, you could still have galvanized water lines in your house. Galvanized piping has a functional life of 40 to 50 years, according to home inspection agencies. If your galvanized steel plumbing system is approaching that age, an upgrade is probably advisable. If the pipes are still in good condition, hardware stores carry a variety of fittings and can cut and thread galvanized pipes to match your needs.

Copper

Copper pipe is mostly used for hot and cold water distribution, as well as being regularly used in HVAC systems for refrigerant lines. Although once used in gas piping, this is no longer allowed in most jurisdictions. Copper piping works in both underground and above-ground applications, but copper can be affected by some soils and it should have a protective sleeve if used underground.

For many years, copper was the gold-standard for water supply pipes, as galvanized steel fell from favor. Copper plumbing pipes can last for up to 50 years, but as it ages, copper thins out, eventually leading to pinhole leaks. More recently, various forms of plastic have replaced copper as the favorite, though copper pipes and fittings are still widely available. Due to the price of copper and longer labor needed to install, many builders have switched to alternative water distribution piping, especially PEX.

Copper comes in different thicknesses which are labeled M, L, and K. M is the thinnest grade of copper. Copper can be connected in different ways, including compression fittings, push-fit fittings, or sweat-soldering.

PVC is an acronym that stands for polyvinyl chloride. Of the different types of plastic pipe used for water supply, PVC has a wide variety of plumbing uses, from drainage pipe to water mains. It is most commonly used for irrigation piping, home, and building supply piping. PVC is also very common in pool and spa systems. PVC pipe is often white but it can also come in other colors. You can often tell what it is used for by the colors and marks on the pipe. For example, purple pipe with black lettering is used for reclaimed water. PVC also comes in a variety of thicknesses, called schedules. Schedules 40 is the most common for pipes used in water distribution.

Historically, PVC was one of the first forms of plastic used instead of copper for water supply pipes. PVC is normally used for cold water pipes only, as heat can eventually break down the plastic. Always check with local code restrictions before using PVC pipes for hot water delivery lines. In homes plumbed with first-generation plastics, the cold water lines are often PVC, with CPVC used for hot water lines.

PVC connections are made by using a primer that softens the PVC and then applying PVC glue that melts the joints and pipe together. PVC pipe should always be clearly labeled if it is used for both potable (drinkable) and non-potable water in the same building.

The acronym CPVC stands for chlorinated polyvinyl chloride. It is often (but not always) a cream-colored or off-white plastic. This type of pipe can stand temperatures up to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit or so (this depends on the schedule), so it can be used for both hot and cold water lines. CPVC is the same outside diameter as copper and PEX, so the same push-fit fittings used for PEX and copper, such as SharkBite, will also fit the CPVC piping.

According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI), CPVC and PVC pipes generally last for 50 to 75 years under perfect conditions, though early failure is also reported in some circumstances.

As with PVC, you should use primer and glue when making a CPVC joint. Also, make sure the glue specifies that is can be used on CPVC.

There are a few different types of pipe that are used for plumbing. Find out the basics about the different types and their appropriate usage.

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